Formula One: Ferrari errs at home, 1-2 for Red Bull

For the first time since Imola came back on the calendar in 2020, Ferrari had a competitive car and there were a lot of expectations. However, this year, the drivers could not manage a podium finish.

Two good: Race winner Max Verstappen and second placed Sergio Perez celebrate with their Red Bull Racing team after the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia Romagna at Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy.   -  Getty Images

After four rounds of the 2022 Formula One Championship, the battle lines have been drawn with the score now reading 2-2 for Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen.

Barring some dramatic swings in fortunes for their respective teammates Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez or either team losing its competitive edge, Leclerc and Verstappen are likely to be the protagonists for the driver’s title race this year.

Ferrari and Leclerc had a dream start to the season with two wins and a second-place finish heading into one of its home races at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit in Imola.

For the first time since Imola came back on the calendar in 2020, Ferrari had a competitive car and there were a lot of expectations. The Monegasque driver led the championship by 34 points from Mercedes’ George Russell before the fourth race of the season.

But throughout the weekend, the Italian team and its drivers made a series of small mistakes that had far-reaching consequences, allowing Red Bull to score a dominant 1-2 led by Verstappen, while the Ferrari drivers came home without even a podium finish.

Despite holding a comfortable 27-point lead after four rounds, Leclerc and Ferrari will know that Red Bull is here to stay as long as it is reliable.

READ: Mercedes 'porpoising' is becoming a real pain for Russell  

Without the two retirements for Verstappen in Bahrain and Australia, while running second and losing at least 36 points, the title race will look a lot different now.

The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was also the first race in the 2022 calendar to have the F1 Sprint Race format with qualifying on Friday evening.

Smooth finish: Red Bull’s Max Verstappen crosses the finish line to win the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.   -  REUTERS

 

The reigning champion — Verstappen — drew first blood securing pole ahead of Leclerc for Saturday’s Sprint Race, the outcome of which decided the starting order for Sunday’s race.

On Saturday, the Dutchman got a poor start as his Red Bull got off the line gingerly allowing Ferrari’s Leclerc to take the lead which he maintained for most of the 30-minute race.

But as he tried to stay at least one second ahead of Verstappen so as not to give the latter a chance to use DRS (Drag Reduction System) and gain speed on the straights, the Ferrari driver was hurting his tyres.

As the race was heading towards a close, this decision by Leclerc started to bite back as he started losing performance, which allowed Verstappen to pass him on the penultimate lap of the race.

The win not only gave Verstappen eight points but also secured the first spot on the grid for Sunday’s race.

On Sunday, the Dutchman controlled things from the start on a damp track even as his rival Leclerc dropped from second to fourth.

It was a race in which he did not put a foot wrong despite challenging track conditions and was helped by his teammate Perez who got the jump on Leclerc and acted as a cushion running in second place.

Costly mistake: Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari looks dejected in parc ferme after finishing sixth. He spun out from third position with 10 laps remaining during the F1 Grand Prix of Emilia Romagna.   -  Getty Images

 

Leclerc was left staring at Perez’s gearbox for the major part of the race after swapping from intermediate tyres to dry weather tyres.

With nothing to lose, Leclerc and Ferrari gambled on a late pit-stop on lap 50 to change to soft tyres to try and force the issue.

Perez and Verstappen followed suit on subsequent laps to cover Leclerc’s move. However, things went wrong for the championship leader on lap 53 when he tried to go after Perez and took the kerb too hard and spun into the wall.

He was lucky he had minor front wing damage, not a terminal issue with his car, and had to do another stop for wing repairs. From third, he rejoined the track in ninth before finishing sixth on the road and lost an easy podium finish.

The second Red Bull of Perez made up for his poor qualifying effort on Friday with a solid Sprint race in which he finished third before helping Red Bull get its first 1-2 finish since 2016.

Perez has looked far stronger than he was last year and if he can take points off Leclerc like in Imola, he would be doing Red Bull and Verstappen a great favour in the title fight. The fact that he was running second contributed to Ferrari taking a gamble to put on new tyres to chase him down and caused Leclerc to go off.

Lando Norris was the biggest beneficiary of Leclerc’s mistake as he scored a valuable podium for McLaren, with Russell finishing fourth.

READ: Norris shocked to be on podium again

Norris ran third at the start of the race overtaking the slow-starting Leclerc but couldn't keep the latter behind for long. He was running a lonely race in fourth until Leclerc gave him the final podium position.

 

After the race, the Ferrari driver and championship leader said, “The spin should not have happened today.

“I mean, P3 was the best I could do, we didn’t have the pace for much more and I was too greedy and I paid the price for it and lost seven potential points compared to the third place I was before.”

While Russell had a good outing on Sunday, his teammate Lewis Hamilton had a miserable weekend running outside of the points in both the Sprint and main race which culminated after he was lapped by winner Verstappen.

The other Ferrari of Carlos Sainz too had misfortunes of its own. He was taken out at the start of the race by McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and the Spaniard is looking more likely to play second fiddle to Leclerc this year after failing to finish in the last two races.

While Ferrari has been the pace-setter in the first four rounds, the fact that Red Bull is not far off if it is reliable has now set up another interesting championship battle for the second year in a row.

If Verstappen vs Hamilton in 2021 was seen as a generational fight between the new and the old guard, the Verstappen vs Leclerc battle promises to be the battle of the future.

The two 24-year-olds, who have been arch-rivals since their karting days, now have a piece of machinery under them to rekindle that rivalry at the top echelon of motorsport.

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